When you thought your family had problems …
Synopsis: When Ellen, the matriarch of the Graham family, passes away, her daughter’s family begins to unravel cryptic and increasingly terrifying secrets about their ancestry. The more they discover, the more they find themselves trying to outrun the sinister fate they seem to have inherited. Making his feature debut, writer-director Ari Aster unleashes a nightmare vision of a domestic breakdown that exhibits the craft and precision of a nascent auteur, transforming a familial tragedy into something ominous and deeply disquieting, and pushing the horror movie into chilling new terrain with its shattering portrait of heritage gone to hell. (Elevation Pictures)
Starring: Toni Collette, Alex Wolff, and Gabriel Byrne
Writer: Ari Aster
Director: Ari Aster
Rating: 14A (Canada)/R (United States)
Running Time: 127mins
Grief can be a scary thing. The most recent example that comes to mind was 2014’s The Babadook. Grief is something that resonates within all of us so its a little surprising that horror films haven’t tapped into it more. Out of this film and the Babadook, this one handles grief a little better while also turning in on its head. The trailers give away as much, however, the better option is to go into this knowing as little as possible. Above all else, the film is about grief. The passing of Ellen, the matriarch of the Graham family unleashes a chain of events that become more and more unsettling and weird as the film went on. It won’t be like many films you’ve seen before but it still won’t be for everybody.
In terms of horror films, sometimes the scarier thing isn’t always what you see but rather how you feel. While this film wasn’t particularly scary for the most part (although others may feel otherwise), there were a few moments that stood out. What the film does right, however, is create an engagingly creepy atmosphere through the use of cinematography, set, and sound design. The crumbling of the Grahams was a slow burn that may be too slow for some. Focusing on Ellen’s daughter Annie (Collette), we slowly learned more about her relationship with her mysterious mother that we as a viewer knew next to nothing about.
What kept the story compelling was how the relationship between Annie and her mother shaped her as a person and a mother and how she grieved. Annie had a complicated relationship with her mother so the manner in which she expressed her grief was equally as complicated. She would also be unstable at times which was perhaps the reason why she chose to face her problems alone. Despite her intentions, she still found a way to further jeopardize her already contentious relationship with her family as her delusions drove her apart from her husband Steve (Byrne), her son Peter (Wolff), and her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro).
The story could easily have stopped there and been fine as a strong family drama. However, from the beginning, the story planted subtle and not so subtle seeds that hinted at something more going on which will surely lead to additional viewings just to catch them all and to gain a better understanding of the film as a whole. The argument could be made that this film felt like two different films once the back half picked up. Though things were already happening, they were tame compared to what happened after Annie opened herself and her family up to other threats in her search for closure while the truth about her mother was revealed.
The film would ultimately not have worked if not for the excellent chemistry and performances from everyone, especially Collette as Annie. She was simply sensational here, showing tremendous emotional and physical range while expressing her feelings and insecurities towards her mother and her family and was also up to the challenge once the tension ramped up. She was easily the best part of the film and well worth the price of admission. Wolff was also impressive and held his own as Peter. Byrne was solid as Steve, the voice of reason amongst the chaos. Shapiro in one her first roles, made a strong impression as Charlie.
Overall, this was an amazing horror-drama thanks to strong writing and direction (from first time feature film writer-director Ari Aster), anchored by a compelling and complex family story about grief that would be turned on its head, slowly building until the end. While not overly scary, it does take a few dark turns and succeeds at creating an unsettling feeling that will remain with you long after watching. It ultimately would not have worked if not for its excellent performances, specifically an award-worthy turn by Toni Collette.